Lionel Messi’s stratospheric performance against Bayern Munich in the 2014/15 UEFA Champions League (UCL) semi-finals, where he famously scored a double and humiliated Jérôme Boateng with a venomous skill move for the ages, has never seemed as distant a memory as it does now. The mythic performances of the fabulous Argentine have been replaced at the Camp Nou, and the recent 3-0 defeat in the Champions League group stage at the hands of ‘Die Bayern’ showed the world who its substitutes are. Analyizing each goal Barcelona conceded side paints a grim picture of the club's present. 

  • 1-0: Gerard Piqué complacently refused to pressure Thomas Muller before he shot and scored, after a deflection by the Catalan defender himself, while Eric García turned around as if not looking at the ball would somehow stop its trajectory towards a helpless Marc-André ter Stegen. 
  • 2-0: Jamal Musiala was left wide open to take a crack at goal. The ball hit the post and found Robert Lewandowski, who took advantage of a distracted yet emphatic Ronald Araújo for the second goal of the night. 
  • 3-0: Frenkie de Jong leisurely walked back towards the Barcelona penalty box while Serge Gnabry, Marcel Sabitzer and Lewandowski powered forward, with the Dutch midfielder incredibly choosing to stand in awe without even attempting to approach the Polish goal machine, who had enough time to leave Piqué in the dust and put the third and final nail in the ‘Blaugrana’ coffin. 

Barcelona didn’t have a single shot on target, forfeited its 24-year old streak of not falling in its first game of the UCL campaign, and put itself in a highly precarious position in Group E, since only three of the 21 teams that lost their first game in the prestigious European competition have even made it out of the group stage, according to popular statistician MisterChip. The cataclysmic night didn’t end with the referee’s final whistle, though. Sergi Roberto was jeered by his own fans, which according to reports caused him to break down in tears later, Jordi Alba and Pedri sustained muscular injuries, and even the proud Piqué seemed to criticize his own club, by stating: “This is what it is, we are what we are”. 

The current state of one of the world’s most iconic clubs might not reflect what most of its fans want or expect, but not even having one of the game's all-time greatest ensured success. Messi himself suffered several harsh beatings by Bayern, including an 8-2 loss in the 2019/20 UCL quarterfinals and a 7-0 aggregate defeat in 2012/13, which means his absence isn’t solely to blame for the club’s recent heartless display. Nowadays, the ‘Blaugrana’ aren’t Champions League contenders, and with their best-ever player now gone, join us to take a look back at the landscape in Barcelona before Messi even joined the first team to see what the 'Culés' can expect in the near future.. 

Rough times in LaLiga

The 2003/04 campaign, Barcelona’s last season before Messi first graced the ranks of the first team, was a time of rebuilding at the club. Joan Laporta had recently been elected president, replacing Joan Gaspart, and Frank Rijkaard took over Radomir Antić’s managerial spot, who had in turn replaced Louis van Gaal halfway through the season after the Dutchman left the ‘Culés’ in 12th spot of LaLiga, with relegation a mere three points away. Antić’’s contract was not renewed and Rijkaard faced the heavy task of improving a UCL quarter-final run and a sixth-placed LaLiga finish. To do so, a major squad overhaul took place. 

Some of the more notable departures included Juan Román Riquelme on loan to Villarreal, Cesc Fàbregas to Arsenal, Frank de Boer to Galatasaray and Roberto Óscar Bonano to Murcia. The signings that came in remain bright spots in the club’s history to this day and completely overhauled the tools Rijkaard had at his disposal. The most important transfer was that of Ronaldinho, for whom Barcelona paid PSG $38 million for, via Transfermarkt. Other staples that first donned the ‘Blaugrana’ colors that summer include Rafael Márquez, in from AS Monaco, Edgar Davids, in from Juventus, and the promotion of Andrés Iniesta and Víctor Valdés from La Masía. 

Luis Enrique, current Spanish national team manager, captained the side that finished an improved second place in LaLiga, reached the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey and the fourth round of the UEFA Cup. Barcelona didn’t even play the Champions League this season due to Van Gaal and Antić’s reign. Club legend Xavi played the most matches during the 2003/04 campaign with 49, followed by Phillip Cocu with 48 and Javier Saviola with 46. The club’s top scorer was Ronaldinho, making an immediate impact in his first season with 21 goals and 11 assists. 

Here’s how the team usually lined up that season, with frequent substitutions included:

Víctor Valdés;

Michael Reiziger, Carles Puyol, Oleguer (Márquez), Giovanni van Bronckhorst;

Xavi (Luis Enrique), Edgar Davids (Gerard), Cocu (Thiago Motta);

Ronaldinho (Ricardo Quaresma), Saviola (Patrick Kluivert), Luis García (Marc Overmars)

Champions League trials and tribulations

Messi wouldn’t feature prominently as a starter until the 2005/06 season, but by the time he became a key figure, Barcelona was back as a usual competitor and challenger in Europe’s most important stage. The now-PSG player won the Champions League with the ‘Culés’ a whopping four times, a feat that is even more impressive when looking back at the club’s historical performance in the prestigious competition. 

Originally known as the European Cup and rebranded in 1992, the tournament that pits the continent’s elite was played for the first time during the 1955/56 season. Teams initially qualified via sporting methods, while some were also invited by French magazine L’Equipe based on perceived prestige and status. Barcelona didn’t participate until the fifth edition, where they reached the semi-finals and were eliminated against eventual winners Real Madrid. This is their European tally for the next 61 seasons: 

  • 31 full participations.
  • 5 wins.
  • Final appearances: 8 (lost three). 
  • Semi-final runs: 9
  • Quarter-final runs: 7.
  • Round of 16 runs: 3. 
  • Top goalscorer: Messi (120 goals). 
  • Most appearances: Xavi (157), followed by Messi (149).  

The numbers paint a grim story for Barcelona fans: no Messi, no party. They state that Barça have only participated in around half of the European Cups / Champions Leagues they have been eligible for in their history,  winning five times and only once without Messi, beating Sampdoria in the 1991/92 final with a Koeman strike in extra time under then-manager Johan Cruyff. In spite of recent success on the European stage, there are still four clubs ahead of Barcelona in the all-time winners list, with Real Madrid eight trophies ahead of the Catalan club. Koeman’s sporting project will need time and serious investment if a return to the heights of European football is to be in the offing, especially with their greatest-ever player now dressing up in PSG colors.